The Criterion Collection box set is one of the essential tools of cinema education, and not just because they look cool on a shelf. The label’s recent dedication to extravagant collections assembling the works of key filmmakers – the doorstop Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema set, for example, or the more recent Complete Films of Agnés Varda – are less like Blu-ray purchases and more like textbooks. The label is an arbiter of the cinematic canon (for better or worse), and sampling from their individual titles can give the curious viewer a pretty thorough overview of world cinema. But the recent breed of Criterion boxes do more: they’re telling, through their expansiveness, significant stories about the history of not only these filmmakers, but of motion pictures themselves.
Take, as your latest example, the new Essential Fellini set. It’s not as exhaustive as the Bergman and Varda boxes, which included all or most of those filmmakers’ works; this one amounts to a little more than half of the Italian master’s output, hence the specificity of its title. But these essentials tell the story, and what’s perhaps most fascinating about Fellini’s career is his evolution. The early films here, like Variety Lights and I vitelloni, are clearly grounded in the traditions of neorealism native to his homeland; they are intimate stories of real lives and real people. But Fellini’s inclination towards unapologetic theatricality and whirligig chaos was always present as well – and so, with each new film and the new confidence it engendered, Fellini’s own voice came further to the fore.
That’s part of what makes Amarcord – one of the key films of the set, as well as of the Criterion Channel’s current “Directed by Federico Fellini” program – so wonderful. Coming in the third act of his career, it feels like a culmination of those intermingling styles, a stage he sets where they can fight it out, so we have a sense of dirt-on-the-floor neorealism mixed with wild, ornate freak show fun.
It is, first and foremost, a charming snapshot of village life, beginning and ending with the coming of the “puffballs” in the air (“When the puffballs soar, the winter is no more”) and thus covering a year in the life of the people who live there. We’re told about the puffballs in direct-to-camera address, and the village’s tall tales and campfire stories are conveyed by a series of storytellers, not all of them necessarily trustworthy. Fellini’s structure for the picture is loose and freewheeling; it’s less driven by a forward-moving narrative than the mere passage of time, and the collection of vignettes, tidbits, and rumors amount to a memory play, inspired by his own childhood in the village of Rimini.
We get a sense, right away, of the town’s feverish pace and colorful characters – or at least, that’s how Fellini remembers them. And that matters; we’re seeing all of this through his distinctive worldview, and while it’s old hat to note how odd his actors look, it’s also not untrue. His critics, now and then, saw his lensing of these actors as sneering or condescending, but it’s quite the contrary. Frankly, it’s just a joy to see, for once, the kind of faces you don’t often see in movies.
As a result, the most conventionally handsome person in the movie – the adolescent son Titta (Bruno Zanin) – is the one who ends up looking like a freak. And that feels authentic, because that’s how he feels most of the time, as most adolescents do. Amarcord is the story of a town, but it’s also the story of Titta and his family, a big, messy crew that yells and prods and needles and also, albeit more quietly and privately, loves. (The film’s influence on Woody Allen’s 1987 masterpiece Radio Days has not gone un-remarked upon.)
It’s also one of Fellini’s hornier movies, which is saying something. You see him taking full advantage of the leeway granted by the cinema of the early 1970s, allowing him to be more explicit in the film’s portrayal ofsex than he was able to in a film like La dolce vita. But there’s also a very child-like sense of humor at play here beyond youthful sexual obsession – the ribald laughs of farts, honking sneezes, and the like.
Considering how broad the humor gets, it’s all the more remarkable that Fellini folds in the film’s passages of darkness so fluidly. The setting is the 1930s, and the Fascists take over the picture as they did the country. The filmmaker effectively sends up the sheer silliness of Il Duce’s political cult of personality, and of the era’s rampant paranoia (Titta’s father is brought in for an interrogation, and when he mentions not having time to put on his tie, his interrogator replies, “Your tie – or the anarchist’s neckerchief?”). But he also doesn’t soft-pedal the horror of what was happening, and what was to come.
Amarcord grows steadily more melancholy and evocative as its 124 minutes pass. In the later passages, as we feel the memories coalescing in Fellini’s subconscious, it becomes less organic and grounded, and more staged and stylized. It’s almost as though Fellini’s artistic evolution is restaged, within the confines of this single work. Near its end, the characters stand agog at an incongruent sight among the white winterscape: a peacock in the snow. The connection isn’t hard to trace. Seldom has an audience been handed so apt and appropriate a metaphor for the filmmaker himself.